This Brigadier Penguin Is the Highest-Ranking Animal in the World

Nils Olav inspects the Kings Guard of Norway after being bestowed with a knighthood at Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland. (Mark Owens/Ministry of Defence)

Sir Nils Olav III is a king penguin, but only holds a rank equivalent to brigadier general in the Norwegian Army. Give him time: He'll rise through the ranks eventually. He's held a long career for someone that started his service at a junior enlisted rank -- and gets promoted regularly.

The current iteration of Sir Nils Olav is the third in a line of penguins that have resided at the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland. Until 2016, his official title was colonel in chief, a ceremonial rank in military units of Commonwealth countries, those that were once part of the British Empire.

As the title suggests, Sir Nils Olav III is the patron of the Norwegian King's Royal Guard. So how did a penguin in Scotland come to be the ceremonial leader of the Norwegian king's bodyguard?

According to the Edinburgh Zoo, the first king penguin to come to the zoo was a gift of the Norwegian company Christian Salvesen in 1913. Salvesen himself died in 1911, but the company not only established a few businesses in Scotland, but many members of the Salvesen family also fought in World War I.

The patronage of the Salvesen family established memorials, housing and special veterans homes there after the war. The penguins of the zoo are a special memory of the Salvesens' and their company's contributions.

In 1961, the Norwegian King's Guard visited Edinburgh to take part in the annual Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, one of the world's largest military festivals, made up of military bands. Lt. Nils Egelien of the battalion visited the penguin colony at the zoo during his visit.

(Courtesy of the Edinburgh Zoo)

He became so enamored with the penguins that he adopted one when he returned to Edinburgh in 1972. The penguin was named Nils after the lieutenant and Olav after then-King of Norway, Olav V. Nils Olav was granted the rank of visekorporal, the equivalent of lance corporal -- but he would not be a terminal lance.

Every time the Norwegian King's Guard returns to Edinburgh, Nils Olav receives a promotion. In 1982, he was elevated to corporal, and in 1987, he was made a sergeant. Sgt. Nils Olav died shortly after making his rank in 1987, so the battalion adopted another king penguin, a 2-year-old who picked up where the original left off.

Nils Olav II was promoted to regimental sergeant major in 1993, to honourable regimental sergeant major in 2001 and to colonel in chief in 2005. In 2008, King Harald V of Norway approved a special title for the king penguin: Nils Olav II was knighted in a ceremony at the Edinburgh Zoo.

The penguin walked along a formation of 130 members of the King's Guard, flanked by the King's Guard color detachment. He was knighted by British Maj. Gen. Euan Loudon on behalf of Norway's King Harald V. The colonel in chief badge tied to his flipper was then replaced by a badge representing his knighthood.

Sir Nils Olav II died shortly after his knighting ceremony – king penguins can live as long as 40 years in captivity – and was again replaced by a third penguin, Sir Nils Olav III. When the King's Guard visited Edinburgh in August 2016, it promoted its patron to brigadier.

Today, a bronze statue of Sir Nils Olav III stands outside of the zoo's Penguins Rock. Another statue of the penguin stands at the King's Guard compound in Oslo, Norway.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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